If individualism is king in MMOs, why do I get the best ‘highs’ from a good group?

Stubborn at SheepTheDiamond muses this week about whether different MMOs place a different importance to being part of a guild or other social group compared with taking care of yourself. So it’s about interdependence vs independence. There is a theory in sociology that RL cultures can be rated on various scales and compared according to how individualist or collectivist they are – Stubborn lists some of the criteria in his blog post. So for example: Japan is usually seen as a more collectivist culture than the USA.

(edited to add: Stubborn has collected links here to other bloggers posts on the subject.)

Incidentally, more individualist cultures have higher incidence of mental health issues like depression. It may well be that being part of a tight knit community with welfare safety nets is actually better for people, healthwise.

I have always enjoyed the frontiersman, independent playing style in a virtual world. But actual interdependence with real people also makes for a very exciting gaming experience. Your social skills will matter. And having other people being dependent on something that you can do does a lot to make a player feel ‘needed’. A lot of players enjoy this; for example I know I get a kick from being one of the few players in the guild who has some desirable craftskill recipe. (You could also argue that all types of interdependence are forms of power play, who has power over who, etc.)  Any game that involves co-op play can also offer a good grouping experience, based on interdependence in combat, and the greatest emotional highs I have had in online game have always been in groups. Admittedly, a bad group or a rude group can also be very miserable.

So I guess my starting point here is to recognise that humans are social animals and being a member of a group can potentially be a source of great enjoyment and satisfaction. An MMO can offer this experience better than just about any other genre on the market, because these games are based in persistent worlds, and the guilds can be persistent too.

Why guilds matter

One of the great things about MMOs is that players can experiment socially in a way they wouldn’t do iRL. For some people this means acting like a tit, for others it might mean experimenting with gender or roleplaying, with acting more confidently, or with being part of a hardcore guild.

So even if we don’t live in highly collectivist cultures, MMOs give us the chance to experience what that might be like. And it has some strong plus points. There is something very comforting about being part of a group where everyone helps each other, everyone wants to be there, everyone fulfils their obligations to the group and the group fulfils its obligations to members.  It models what families should be like, really.

In older MMOs, the earliest guilds I remember joining were all designed around this idea. We weren’t forced to tithe to the guild, but players tended to fall over themselves to give stuff to the guild bank or guild crafters. They still do – I don’t remember ever being in a guild that had a guild bank that wasn’t quickly filled with stuff players had donated.  It was a way of showing that you were a good team player and a way of ‘buying in’ to the whole guild ethos. Plus it’s only a game, you weren’t being asked to hand over your firstborn or your life savings.

So for a lot of players, we really enjoy the sense of give and take, of mutual obligation, of shared group identity, that comes with a good guild. Humans are social animals, and enjoy being in supportive groups.

Along with this, MMOs included content that needed a lot of people working together to overcome. This might have been big dragons, or complex quests that needed lots of people working together, or economic goals. There might have been group PvP goals, or faction PvP. So there’s your motivation to join a group over and above the social aspect. There might have been crafting aspects also – where no single crafter could make a finished item without input from other crafters.

A large part of being in a guild was around trust building. The player learning to trust the guild, and the guild learning to trust the player. The latter happens by the player being around and showing that they are keen to take part in guild activities and happy to play their role to whatever standard is needed.

The upsides: Access to group/ raid content. Access to better crafted goods and other guild amenities. Access to a social group, and possibly new friends. Being part of a larger organisation. Knowing that this group will keep their own guild/social rules (ie. be nice to each other)

The downsides: Guild events happen on a guild calendar, not your personal preferred dates/times.  Guild drama – this happens in any group in any hobby. Having to conform to guild rules, even if you think they are stupid. Having to socialise with guildmates (even if only on guild chat) even if you dislike them. Someone has to run the guild, this can be a lot of work. Finding a guild that suits your personality, playing style, and schedule.

For better or worse, being part of a guild is one of the core MMO experiences, especially if you are pursuing guild goals. No other type of game offers anything quite like it. The closest might be other online communities.

WoW – the game that can’t quite decide if it wants to be individualist or collectivist

WoW has wavered all over the place (in my opinion) with the individualist/collectivist trends. I think their goal is to leave choices open for players, but in practice it tends to favour individualist approaches. Even when you are part of a guild, there is a strong sense that WoW has mechanised ‘what do I get from being in this guild?’ via perks, rather than letting guild leaders make their own case. WoW’s raid model has also done more than anything to push players into taking an individualist view of their guild membership. I think they ended up with a very achievement focussed model, it’s all about the raiding and the guild becomes just a mechanism for organising regular raids.

There are still ‘social’ guilds out there, where membership means more than just being on the raid team. But it is in spite of Blizzard’s efforts, not because of them. WoW also fostered a guild hopping environment which was strongest during TBC, where progression minded players felt the best way to play the game was start in a ‘Kara guild’ and then progress by guild hopping as soon as they were geared for the next tier of raiding.

The traditional raid guild, by counter example, would progress through the content as a guild and players would normally be expected to stick with the guild. Obviously, as soon as guilds started haemorrhaging their more ambitious members whenever their progression slowed, this got a lot more difficult.

Blizzard has made noises more recently about supporting guilds. They did this by introducing the idea of guild levels, guild reputation, and guild perks. But one max level guild has the same perks as any other, plus the ‘fun’ of levelling is over for anyone else who joins. Also the LFR means that it’s easier than ever for a solo player to see raid content without being in a guild. I don’t think their guild focus was bad per se, but once the individualist cat is out of the bag, it’s hard to make guilds as appealing as when they felt more important.

Is a guild really more than a chat channel?

I have been in guilds in many different games. I felt that LOTRO was less gung ho on the individualist front – people were in guilds for the companionship and even the RP, as much as for raiding. Having a guild house also provided a good focus for events. Guilds in SWTOR are similar to WoW, many are raid focussed, some are PvP focussed, some are more social. I felt it was easier in SWTOR to make a multi-purpose guild, maybe the activities are that bit more accessible or the playerbase less hardcore.

Guilds in sandbox games like ATITD or EVE tend to have way more control over their purpose, not being restricted to dev provided content. Tale in the Desert is probably the closest I have ever seen to a true collectivist game. You could be in multiple guilds, and it was common for guilds to be extremely specific in their activities.

I suspect that the more power that a guild holds as a gatekeeper to content, whether it be high end raids or nul sec PvP, the more likely a game is to have strong collectivist tones. When the power resides more with the individual, you end up with individualism. That does give players more freedom and its not surprising that players tend to favour those games when they have the choice, but it comes at the cost of community and one of the more interesting types of online play that gaming has ever encouraged.

There has never really been a better time in MMO history to have your cake and eat it with individualism/ collectivism. Most games now acknowledge that players like to be independent and offer more soloing options. At the same time, being in a guild is still a very common part of MMOs so there are usually plenty of friendly guilds around for players to join. It isn’t the same as when guilds held more power and collectivism was more enforced, that was … definitely an experience to be a part of. But we’re not yet at the point of every man for himself either.

Also, increasingly people come to MMOs as part of an existing community, whether it be groups of friends who have gamed together before or large online forum communities. I think with GW2, especially at the start, we’ll see how powerful the pre-organised guilds can be in terms of PvP. I do wonder whether this will have a huge unbalancing effect on the game in general, and whether it will work itself out in time or whether initial biases will shape the game for the whole of its life.